Feb. 9, 2021

All in a day's learning: Winter roads, aurora borealis, and COVID-19

Annual Vet Med student trip to the North goes ahead despite the pandemic
From top to bottom, Madison Anderson, Emily Dorey, Kelsie Paris, Chelsey Zurowski. Faculty of Veterinary Medicine photos

For the last 10 years, a group of fourth-year students in UCalgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM) has travelled the frozen winter roads in the Sahtu region of the Northwest Territories. Visiting tiny communities near the Arctic Circle, students and their instructors provide routine care and spay and neuter surgeries to local dogs and cats.

For most people in the remote region, it’s the only opportunity each year for their animals to get veterinary care.

“People have come to depend on it and expect it,” says Dr. Susan Kutz, DVM, PhD, a professor at UCVM who started the community medicine program in 2008 with a needs assessment of the area and checkups.

“Especially this year with the pandemic,” says Kutz. “People in Norman Wells often will go out during the summer for a few weeks to see family in the south and they’ll take their animals to see a veterinarian. But this year, clearly people have not been travelling as much. In the smaller communities, people don't have any access to veterinary care.”

Kutz, along with Dr. Frank van der Meer, DVM, PhD, associate professor at UCVM, is leading the northern rotation for four UCVM Class of 2021 students: Madison Anderson, Emily Dorey, Kelsie Paris, and Chelsey Zurowski. The team is providing vet care for animals in Norman Wells, Tulita, Fort Good Hope, Délįne, and Colville Lake.

Chelsey Zurowski and Madison Anderson examine a dog in Tulita.

Chelsey Zurowski and Madison Anderson examine a dog in Tulita.

Bringing veterinary care to a COVID-free region is no small feat

It’s a massive undertaking in any year. Arranging flights, accommodation, setting up makeshift clinics in communities, and flying in surgical equipment, supplies, and pharmaceuticals. But this year, COVID-19 added an extra wrinkle to the preparations. As part of the NWT’s efforts to keep COVID-19 out of the region, the group had to isolate in Yellowknife for two weeks before heading further north. 

“With COVID, everybody in the North is extremely cautious,” says Kutz. ”They've been able to keep COVID out for the most part and they want to keep it that way. Also, if COVID did get into the communities it would spread like wildfire and there just aren’t the medical facilities to support people.” 

For that reason, Kutz thought people in the region might want the trip cancelled this year.

“At sort of the 11th hour, I contacted the communities and each community said, ‘As long as your team does the 14-day isolation, we would welcome you to come and we want you to come.’ That was very exciting and rewarding to hear.”

Chesley Zurowski watches the mesmerizing display of aurora borealis in Tulita.

Chesley Zurowski watches the mesmerizing display of aurora borealis in Tulita.

Madison Anderson

A beautiful place with beautiful people

Chelsey Zurowski and her fellow students are extremely grateful for the welcome. The trip not only provides a chance to practise veterinary medicine without the amenities of a city clinic. It’s also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet and learn from people from a culture far removed from the one they grew up in.

”It's absolutely incredible here,” says Zurowski, who before this trip had never been farther north than Edmonton. “I have found the people to be so kind and welcoming. And the landscape is stunningly beautiful. It is a beautiful place with beautiful people.”

Zurowksi says the northern rotation is something she’d dreamt about since her first year at UCVM. Seeing the luminous aurora borealis in the crystal-clear winter sky is spectacular. And connecting with people in the community is something to treasure. “I'm incredibly grateful to have had the stars align to get me here, and I know my classmates with me feel the exact same way. It's a truly amazing experience.”

COVID-19 threat cancels school visits

The pandemic means having to limit the number of people coming into the clinics and no school visits.

“Normally, people will come in with the whole family and the kids. So, that's a bit of a challenge, especially if they've got kids at home and need to babysit,” says Kutz. “The other big thing is that normally in Tulita and Fort Good Hope we do this in the schools, so there's lots of opportunities for the kids to come and see the appointments and see what surgery is about. This year we can't do that.”

“We're a little sad that we don't get to see the kids in person, but at least we got to see them over Zoom,” says Zurowski. “We put together some presentations for them during our quarantine, about what it's like to be a veterinarian and how to become a vet. And we presented some of the cool cases we've seen so far in our fourth year to the schools over Zoom.”

Do dogs get dizzy?

But Zurowski did meet one of the students by chance.

“We were leaving to go start cooking dinner and one of the students was outside the hall where we had a clinic. She said ‘Hello. I saw you on Zoom.’  I got to chat with her a little bit. We got some great questions during our virtual presentation. This girl was the one who asked, ‘Can dogs see ghosts? And ‘Do dogs get dizzy?’ It was nice to put a face to those questions.”

Zurowski would like to continue this kind of community veterinary medicine into her practice in the future.

“I'm hoping to be able to incorporate some time off to dedicate to community medicine. To be able to travel around, whether that is with the Canadian Animal Task Force or something similar to provide these kinds of services to communities that are underserved in terms of veterinary medicine and help bring that help to those people and those animals.”

You can follow the students’ Northern adventures on Facebook.

A note about our generous sponsors

Dr. Kutz says the actual cost of the program would be prohibitive without the generosity of the following: the communities of Tulita, Fort Good Hope, Colville Lake, Deline, and Norman Wells; Elanco, Boehringer Ingelheim, Western Drug Distribution Centre Limited, Buffalo Airways, North-Wright Airways, Canadian North Airline, Kapami Co-op, The Northern Store, Behdzi Ahda First Nation Band,  the Government of the Northwest Territories, Northwest Territories Veterinary Services, NWT SPCA, Great Slave Lake Animal Hospital, Veterinarians Without Borders, and the University of Calgary.